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Cognitive development is a field of study in neuroscience and psychology focusing on a child's development in terms of information processing, conceptual resources, perceptual skill, language learning, and other aspects of brain development and cognitive psychology. A large portion of research has gone into understanding how a child conceptualizes the world. Jean Piaget was a major force in the founding of this field, forming his "theory of cognitive development". Many of his theoretical claims have since fallen out of favor. However, his description of the general tendencies of cognitive development (e.g., that it moves from being dependent on actions and perception in infancy to understanding of the more observable aspects of reality in childhood to capturing the underlying abstract rules and principles in adolescence is still generally acceptable. Moreover, many of the phenomena that he discovered, such as object permanence in infancy and the conservations in school age children, are real and still attract the interest of researchers. In the recent years alternative models have been advanced, including the neo-Piagetian theories of cognitive development, which aim to integrate Paiget's ideas which stood up well the test of time with more recent theorizing and methods in developmental and cognitive science.

A major controversy in cognitive development has been "nature vs. nurture", or nativism versus empiricism. However, it is now recognized by all experts that this is a false dichotomy: there is overwhelming evidence from biological and behavioral sciences that from the earliest points in development, gene activity interacts with events and experiences in the environment. Therefore the "vs." is false: there is no dichotomy. Another question is how culture and social experience relate to developmental changes in thinking. Another question is phylogenic convergence or homology with non-human animals. Most aspects of learning and cognition are similar in humans and non-human animals. These issues propagate to nearly every aspect of cognitive development.


Speculated core systems of cognition

Nativists theorize that children are born with many innate cognitive systems designed to tackle problems that the human species have faced over a very long evolutionary time. Empiricists study how these skills may be learned in such a short time. The debate is over whether these systems are learned by general-purpose learning devices, or domain-specific cognition. Moreover, many modern cognitive developmental psychologists, recognizing that the term "innate" does not square with modern knowledge about epigenesis, neurobiological development, or learning, favor a non-nativist framework. Researchers who discuss "core systems" often speculate about differences in thinking and learning between proposed domains. The more modern framework questions how differences in processing different kinds of information (not necessarily called "domains") emerge with experience and brain development within general dynamic systems. This is sometimes called the "neuroconstructivist" approach.

Researchers who posit a set of so-called "core domains" suggest that children are innate sensitivity to specific kinds of patterns of information. Those commonly cited include:



Infants appear to have two systems for dealing with numbers. One deals with small numbers, often called subitizing. Another deals with larger numbers in an approximate fashion.[1]


Very young children appear to have some skill in navigation. This basic ability to infer the direction and distance of unseen locations develops in ways that are not entirely clear. However, there is some evidence that it involves the development of complex language skills between 3 and 5 years. Also, there is evidence that this skill depends importantly on visual experience, because congenitally blind individuals have been found to have impaired abilities to infer new paths between familiar locations.

Later in life, adults can use language and symbols (e.g., maps) to reason about information. When adults' language processing is engaged in other tasks, they reason is different ways.

Visual perception

One of the original nativist versus empiricist debates was over depth perception. There is some evidence that children less than 72 hours old can perceive such complex things as biological motion.[2] However, it is unclear how visual experience in the first few days contributes to this perception. There are far more elaborate aspects of visual perception that develop during infancy and beyond. [elaboration of this section is forthcoming!]


Young children seem to be predisposed to think of biological entities (e.g., animals and plants) in an essentialistic way.[3] This means that they expect such entities (as opposed to, e.g., artifacts) to have many traits such as internal properties that are caused by some "essence" (such as, in our modern Western conceptual framework, the genome).

Language acquisition

A major, well-studied process and consequence of cognitive development is language acquisition. The traditional view was that this is the result of deterministic, human-specific genetic structures and processes. Other traditions, however, have emphasized the role of learning and social experience in language learning. However, the relation of gene activity, experience, and language development is now recognized as incredibly complex and difficult to specify. Language development is sometimes separated into learning of phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, and discourse or pragmatics. However, all of these aspects of language knowledge--which were originally posited by the linguist Noam Chomsky to be autonomous or separate--are now recognized to interact in complex ways.

Other notable theoretical views on cognitive development

Of course, the human mind expands far beyond these simple forms of cognition. For example, children are not born knowing what force is, but they are capable of eventually learning.

Whorf's hypothesis

Benjamin Whorf believed that a person's thinking depends on the structure and content of their social group's language.

Quine's bootstrapping hypothesis

Willard Quine (1908-2000) suggested that there are innate conceptual biases that determine the language meaning that we acquire, and the concepts and beliefs that we acquire, as we develop. Quine's theory relates to other nativist philosophical traditions, such as the European rationalist philosophers. A relevant figure in this nativist tradition for cognitive developmental theory is Immanuel Kant.

Piaget's theory

Jean Piaget (1896-1980) believed that people move through stages of development that allow them to think in new, more complex ways.

Many of his claims have fallen out of favor. For example, he claimed that young children cannot conserve number. However, further experiments show that children did not really understand what was being asked of them. When the experiment is done with candies, and the children are asked which set they want rather than tell an adult which is more, they show no confusion about which group has more items.

Neuroscience and Cognitive Development

During development, especially the first few years of life, children show interesting patterns of neural development and a high degree of neuroplasticity. The relation of brain development and cognitive development is extremely complex and, since the 1990s, a growing area of research.


  1. ^ Feigenson, L., Dehaene, S., Spelke, E. (2004). Core Systems of Number. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 8. 307-314.
  2. ^ Simion, F., Regolin, L. & Bulf, H. (2008). A predisposition for biological motion in the newborn baby. PNAS 105(2), 809-813.
  3. ^ Gelman, S. (2003). The Essential Child.

See also


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